The owners, coaches and general managers of the National Basketball Association met in California last week to celebrate the end of their longest and most lucrative season. Tennis games and poolside martini brunches took place at the magnificent 90-year-old Hotel del Coronado, across the bay from San Diego. The annual meeting also had a bit of "housekeeping" to do—Commissioner Larry O'Brien calls himself "the league's chief housekeeper"—and four teams had to have their affairs tidied up. But in the brilliant California sunshine even that problem didn't seem truly urgent.
And for good reason. The nine-year bidding war that had kept most pro clubs, both NBA and ABA, with one foot in the poorhouse was history. Attendance for the 1976-77 season had reached an alltime high, television ratings had soared 15%, and the free-agent movement that had shaken professional baseball and football appeared to be of no concern to the basketball moguls. In short, the NBA could congratulate itself on being one big happy monopoly at last.
But skies were not perfectly clear over San Diego Bay; there was this one small black cloud hovering over the heads of the delegates from the four former ABA teams that had been so generously accepted by the NBA a year ago. The generous terms were these: pay us $12.8 million, with an extra $4 million from the Nets for encroaching on the New York Knicks, and stay out of our TV money for four years.
In the 12 months since peace arrived at last year's meetings at Hyannis, Mass., $12 million of the debt has been paid. This left "The Four"—as the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs came to be called by the "Old 18" NBA clubs—still owing $800,000, hurting in various degrees because of it and prepared to ask for a little relief from their lodge brothers.
They could and did point out that the NBA's finest year was the first that included ABA teams and players, and that five of the final eight playoff teams—including both finalists—were powered by ex-ABA players. And CBS showed clearly where it stood on the importance of at least one ex-ABAer by switching the weight of its TV schedule from the Nets to the 76ers when Julius Erving moved to Philadelphia. "At least let us have some of the $10.5 million in TV money you shared showing off our players to the world," said The Four.
"Look," said one longtime NBA owner from poolside, "we were doing fine before there ever was an ABA. We would have had their players sooner or later anyway. Four teams wanted in and we told them what it would cost. Fine. Now we have $12 million we didn't have before, some good players we didn't have before and, if they can make it, a couple of teams in a couple of markets we didn't have before. We love our 22-team league. But 20 is O.K., too."
Carl Scheer, the Nuggets' president, was similarly practical: "When Hirohito was negotiating with MacArthur, he didn't ask for Manhattan."
In their eagerness to get into the NBA, The Four had allowed themselves to be squeezed from both sides until, says Scheer, "the $12.8 million became almost $24 million." The Four had also committed themselves to a $3.3 million payout to John Y. Brown, owner of the disbanded Kentucky Colonels. (No one has come out of the merger with a sweeter deal than Brown, who now owns the Buffalo Braves and is still owed $2.2 million by The Four.) And there were various lesser obligations amounting to about $3.9 million. For all of this, The Four are jointly and individually responsible, so that, in the words of Bob Carlson, an associate of Net President Roy Boe, "We're a house of cards. If one card goes, pfffft."
At least one card, Indiana, seemed in danger of toppling immediately. Situated in the heart of basketball country, the Pacers drew 10,500 a game last season, a figure respectable enough to have given them a slim operational profit. But with the enormous debt, the owners simply did not have the kind of megabucks to keep the franchise on its feet. In fact, the Pacers' money plain ran out in mid-May, and on June 1, the players did not get paid. Billy Knight joked about the possibility of his becoming a pool hustler but also took pains to notify the league that, according to his contract, he would become a free agent in five days. The Pacer office staff had already gone three weeks without pay, skipping lunches and relying on sandwich vendors and soft-drink companies for handouts, and on the Racers, a WHA hockey team, for paper cups for the office coffeepot. Enough money was eventually borrowed to pay the players, but the team still has a $3.4 million loan to pay off, and fresh capital is contingent upon selling 8,000 season tickets by June 30, more than double last year's total.
The Nets' dismal 6,935 announced attendance average was the league's second worst. They have already proved that they cannot draw from the white middle-class commuter bedrooms of Nassau County, even with championship teams (two in the last four years) and superstars ( Erving and Rick Barry). Now the club has been wrecked, draft choices traded away for bad players and talent sold for raw cash. Boe is accused of devoting all his energy to the successful Islanders hockey team. "Nonsense," he said, before splitting early to tend to the signing of some Swedish hockey players back in New York.